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In the southwestern corner of Arkansas, there is a park named for a Dutch queen. Queen Wilhelmina was named Queen of the Netherlands in 1890 when she was just ten years old. Her youth and boldness often put the young Queen in the spotlight, even attracting the attention of American newspapers. She was inaugurated in 1898 at 18 years old. The Queen guided her country through two world wars. In World War I, she kept the Netherlands neutral. But in World War II, Germany invaded, and the Queen fled to England. From there, she broadcast messages by radio to her country to encourage her people. After five years, she returned in 1945, only to abdicate to her daughter, Juliana, three years later. Winston Churchill once said of the Queen, “I fear no man in the world but Queen Wilhelmina.”
Queen Wilhelmina ascended to the throne in 1890.
In Arkansas, a group of investors chose the top of Rich Mountain, the second-highest peak in Arkansas, as an ideal location for a lodge to cater to railroad traffic. In 1896, the chief construction engineer for the Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad (now the Kansas City Southern railroad) laid out extra-wide, 80-foot downtown streets for a new town to be developed at the base of Rich Mountain.
The town was one of a series created by the railroad as railroad tycoon Arthur E. Stilwell pushed the railroad south all the way to Port Arthur, Texas. The newly-built town acquired the name of Mena after the wife of Jan de Goeigen, a Dutch coffee merchant who was helping Stilwell fund the railroad. Stilwell and de Goeigen founded 40 towns as they laid track down to the Gulf of Mexico. The railroad began operating on August 19, 1896. By 1898, Mena was named the county seat of Polk County.
Arthur E. Stilwell was the visionary behind the Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad and several Arkansas towns, including Mena, De Queen, Vandervoort and Wickes.
Once the railroad was established, Stilwell sought to enhance the passenger experience by encouraging his Dutch investors to build a lodge on scenic Rich Mountain. From its peak of 2,681 feet above sea level, the mountain offers an expansive view of the surrounding Ouachita Mountains. The 35-room lodge was completed in 1898 and opened on June 22, only a few months before Queen Wilhelmina was inaugurated in September. The lodge was named Wilhelmina Inn in honor of its Dutch founders, and of course, the young Queen of the Netherlands. It included a room named for the Queen, should she ever visit.
Though the lodge was built with grand visions to match the sweeping view from the mountaintop, business didn’t materialize how investors hoped. Despite dance parties accompanied by an orchestra held in the 300-person dining hall, the Wilhelmina Inn floundered. It sold in 1900 and ran through a series of owners, eventually being raffled in 1905 using 30-dollar raffle tickets. Stilwell, the original visionary, suffered a similar fate as he lost control of the railroad he helped build. Meanwhile, the young Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands married and suffered a series of miscarriages. She gave birth to her only heir, daughter Juliana, in 1909.
Queen Wilhelmina frequently broadcasted from exile in England to encourage the Dutch people under German occupation during World War II.
By 1910, the Wilhelmina Inn had fallen into disrepair, its rooms abandoned, even the one reserved for the Queen herself. It would stay this way until the 1950s when two state lawmakers purchased the property intending to revive the once-grand inn as a state park. The resolution passed in 1957, creating Queen Wilhelmina State Park. Soon, work began on rebuilding the lodge on the base of the original structure. By 1961, the park contained a cafe with rooms added as funding became available. The new lodge was dedicated on the same day as the original Wilhelmina Inn, June 22, though this second dedication happened 65 years later, in 1963. In the Netherlands, Queen Wilhelmina died in November of 1962.
Ten years after the opening, Queen Wilhelmina Lodge burned. A new lodge was quickly built in its place. This third lodge has served as a vibrant tourist attraction since 1975. The lodge was renovated in 2012 and reopened in 2015. Its 40 modern rooms and a large wrap-around porch allow visitors to sit in rocking chairs to take in the view of the Ouachitas. The Queen’s restaurant serves southern fare, and the park includes 41 campsites and four hiking trails.
Rich Mountain also houses some unusual flora. The predominant oak trees are small and gnarled because of the constant wind and frequent ice in winter. The weather itself can be different from the surrounding area, with cooler temperatures, wind and sometimes fog, which earned the original lodge the nickname “Castle in the Sky.”
Queen Wilhelmina State Park is located on the Talimena Scenic Drive, which has its eastern terminus in Mena. You can find out more about the history of the Kansas City Southern railroad at the historic Mena Kansas City Southern Depot. Mena also offers eateries and a downtown arts scene. The surrounding Ouachita Mountains allow visitors to explore the area on foot, mountain bike, motorcycle or all-terrain vehicle.
In 1898, when a small inn was given the name of a foreign queen, the investors couldn’t have known its future included enduring as one of Arkansas’s beautiful state parks. However, over 120 years later, visitors still experience the view from the porch of the lodge built in Wilhelmina’s name. In the Netherlands, King Willem-Alexander, the great-grandson of Wilhelmina, now reigns. But, the king has three daughters of his own, meaning someday, a queen will once again rule the nation.
Photos of Queen Wilhelmina State Park courtesy of Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.
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